Federal PR contracts in the bull's eye of new report

Federal PR and advertising contracts are likely to see more scrutiny following new findings that the government has spent more than $16 billion over the past decade on outside advertising, marketing, and PR contractors.

Federal PR and advertising contracts are likely to see more scrutiny following new findings that the government has spent more than $16 billion over the past decade on outside advertising, marketing, and PR contractors.

The Washington Guardian and Northwestern University's Medill News Service conducted the research about the government spending.

The report intimates that these contracts could be an example of wasteful spending, as the investigation found that they are awarded without full competition and are paid for with funds “above and beyond the millions of dollars a year that agencies already spend on their full-time press, communications, and media operations.”

Federal agencies are spending about $1.5 billion a year on advertising as the country faces a massive deficit, the Guardian added. Such activity “raises questions on whether promoting programs, policies, and industries is really the best use of taxpayer dollars.”

For instance, the Veterans Affairs Department has spent $25 million on advertising since 2011 to encourage more retired troops to take advantage of its mental health services. The report implies it is “luring new customers into a system that is suffering historic backlogs for the people it already tries to serve.”

After a year of covering federal contracts, I have found that most of them are anything but wasteful and are imperative to raising awareness about programs to help American citizens in a variety of ways.

In fact, some of these contracts even save money in the end. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says its “Former Smokers” campaign will result in more than $170 million saved over three years, based on the cost-benefits of quitting smoking.

“CDC conducts awareness campaigns to inform Americans about risks to their health and actions they can take to prevent disease and promote overall health,” Karen Hunter, a senior public affairs specialist at the federal agency, told PRWeek a few weeks ago. “Mass media provides powerful and efficient channels to reach population segments in need of such information.”

Jeff Jordan, founder and president of Rescue Social Change Group, whose firm just got a $152 million contract with the FDA for a national anti-tobacco campaign, agreed with some of the criticism about federal campaigns.

“There are terrible PR campaigns…and there is a whole bunch of waste,” he said.

Jordan added that in many cases federal agencies don't know what they want when they hire a firm, and unlike a private entity that can live or die based on a campaign's success, federal agencies can spend millions on an unsuccessful effort and still remain intact.

He feels that the PR industry needs to get away from treating the federal government like commercial clients, and instead focus on strategy that will actually change behavior.

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